OHS as business strategy: one company's experience

Jun 07, 2013

billiards ballsIn just a single year, Continental Mushroom's workers compensation claim costs dropped from $165,000 to $2,000, with no significant change in the size of its workforce.

Was it by chance? Maybe. But smart money would bet on a revitalized health and safety program undertaken to keep employees safe and minimize business losses. Research shows that businesses with a robust health and safety culture typically outperform competitors who do not commit as readily to organizational health.

Continental Mushroom is Canada's largest family owned and operated mushroom grower. Each day the business harvests, packages and ships 17 tons of mushrooms - 8 to 10 tractor trailers - from its Metcalfe, Ontario growing operation. (For more on the operation and potential hazards, see "Related articles: How Continental Mushroom grows its crops.")

In January 2012, the business hired Mike Hannah to implement change. Hannah is a full-time health and safety professional. Although he is central to Continental Mushroom's story, this article is not just about him or about mushroom farming. It's about organizational change initiated by senior management, facilitated by Hannah, and adopted by the operation's 280+ managers, supervisors and workers.

The owners' decision to hire a full-time health and safety professional was a turning point for Continental Mushroom.

Sheila James, WSPS Consultant

Hannah had been referred to Continental Mushroom by Sheila James, a Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS) consultant who has worked with the business on an as-needed basis for 20 years. "When the owners told me they were now ready to take a more proactive approach to health and safety," explains James, "I thought Mike Hannah would be the person to help them do that.

"The owners' decision to hire a full-time health and safety professional was a turning point for Continental Mushroom," says James. (For more on Sheila James' perspective, see "Related articles: What Continental Mushroom is doing right.")

The owners and president asked Hannah for a cradle to grave review of their health and safety program. "The first thing I did," says Hannah, "was to conduct a gap analysis. Once I determined where we were, I put together a proposal on how to proceed and presented it to the owners and president. They said, 'Go.'"

Senior management support was essential for Hannah. "Health and safety staff need to be fully supported by the owners of any company. Otherwise, you cannot operate to the letter of the law with the Ministry of Labour."

Step two: organization-wide hazard identification and assessment, conducted by WSPS. The assessment lasted a month. Hannah ensured employees were involved and kept informed through managers meetings and the operation's joint health and safety committees.

Step three: WSPS development and implementation of a health and safety manual, including policies and safe operating procedures.

Step four: development and implementation of training for all employees, including

  • company-wide training on such topics as rights and responsibilities under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, violence and harassment, and WHMIS (Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System)
  • job- and hazard-specific training, such as working with and around machinery, and preventing musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

Hannah has also taken employees through the Ministry of Labour's new worker and supervisor health and safety awareness programs in advance of ministry plans to make the programs mandatory. "As soon as something new comes out, I put our people through it. We're being proactive wherever we can."

The company has also taken employees through the Ministry of Labour's new worker and supervisor health and safety awareness programs in advance of ministry plans to make the programs mandatory. "As soon as something new comes out, I put our people through it. We're being proactive wherever we can. I've also set our safety administration up so that on a day-to-day basis people understand there's a process behind everything, and how the process works."

Mike Hannah

Step five: creation of training records, including an Excel training matrix and hard copy files for each employee. The training matrix shows the employee name and number, department, hire dates, and specialized training they've received. "The training matrix is my psalms sheet that I live by each day, continually," says Hannah. The paper records serve as backup and confirmation. "As much as we'd like to be a paperless world, if an incident occurred, you have to be able to support what you're saying with documentation. It won't wash with the Ministry of Labour to say, 'Well, that guy's driven the trailer for 30 years, he's competent.'"

Step six: enforce the health and safety policies and procedures. "I was an army sergeant," says Hannah. "When you're a sergeant, your men are your responsibility. As a supervisor/manager, you have that same responsibility to ensure your employees' safety, and that they're coached, trained, and praised when necessary. But respect can't be demanded. It has to be earned."

One of the ways in which Hannah earns employees' respect is to work beside them. "This morning I was working with employees screwing growing bed boards into place because it helps me see what they're doing and the tools they're using. Plus, they see I'm not just a suit and tie."

Step seven: monitor, adjust and improve. For instance, Hannah has been training managers and supervisors to report all incidents, and in their reporting drill down to root causes. "Once you have root causes, you can identify countermeasures to prevent an incident from happening again. Unless you do something about it, it will happen again."

Hannah himself reports daily to the owners. "There are certain things on the dashboard of your car that you need to be aware of when you drive to work every day - how much gas is in your tank, your battery level, your oil level, and your driving speed. Those are functional things you need to know. When I report to the owners each morning, I give them an OHS version of the dashboard readings -an update on training and other activities going on that day, any incidents that may have occurred the day before, any issues that we may need to watch. These people are busy, so my report is brief. But once a month I also present a more comprehensive report. Keeping everyone informed makes it easier to move forward when the need arises."

Sustaining performance

Creating reporting and record-keeping systems is just one way in which Hannah is building a sustainable health and safety program. Here are two more. "The farm manager and I have just started monthly meetings with the 5-6 managers and 14 supervisors. These are operations meetings, and in our discussions safety and productivity go hand in hand. Each can have quite an impact on the other. My goal is to increase the meeting frequency to weekly: shorter meetings, but taking place more often.

"I've also set our safety administration up so that on a day-to-day basis people understand there's a process behind everything, and how the process works. For instance, I use a lot of 'flow boxes' on all our forms and reports that show people what to do next. These documents serve as a road map for anyone filling them out.

"You don't want to be in a position where only one person knows how to do something. If something happens to that person, things stop. That's bad for business."

So too is standing still. Although Hannah is pleased with the progress Continental Mushroom has made, he's already looking ahead. "I'd like to focus more on the supervisors and managers - ensuring they're fully aware of their health and safety responsibilities and acting on them."

One of the strengths of Continental Mushroom's supervisors and managers is that they all began as pickers and worked their way up to other positions over time. Consequently, the management team is familiar with each aspect of production. However, health and safety comes with responsibilities, and as Hannah puts it, "I can't be the only enforcer. The supervisors and managers also need to enforce the policies and procedures. When I come around the corner and people know I'm there, everyone's doing everything right. But this has to continue after I've left. It has to be part of how we do business.

"It helps that the owners, managers and supervisors are genuinely interested in keeping employees safe. My job is to help them learn how to do it."

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